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360 Degrees of Bob Moorhead

“It was a start. I believe in starts. Once you have the start, the rest is inevitable.”
—Joey “The Lips” Fagan, The Commitments

Presumably somebody somewhere waited breathlessly for Bob Moorhead [1] to make his major league debut, but it seems safe to say he didn’t carry quite the cachet to his impending initiation that Noah Syndergaard [2] did going into Tuesday night. Besides, whatever Moorhead’s qualities as a pitcher, his big moment was bound to be obscured by a much bigger one.

Moorhead, you see, stepped up to the big leagues on April 11, 1962, and if that date looks familiar, you’ve been paying attention. That was the day 14 players made their Mets debut. That was the day the Mets made their debut. It was Game One for the franchise, Game One for all of us, really. But it couldn’t have been a bigger deal for anybody whose spikes were on the ground than it was for Bob.

Bob Moorhead was the only one of the extremely Original Mets — those who participated in Loss One (11-4 at St. Louis) — who had never played in a major league game before. Remember the historical rap on the 1962 Mets: they valued veteran familiarity over youthful promise, believing the best way to distract fans and buy time was to serve up recognizable names to our fair city’s disenfranchised National League diehards. That goes a long way toward explaining the presence of Hodges and Zimmer and Ashburn and so on. Still, expansion begets a widening of the job market. There was a net of 50 new positions to be filled in New York and Houston; the Mets were bound to break in somebody who’d never been a major leaguer before.

Their first somebody was Bob Moorhead, righthanded relief pitcher from Chambersburg, Penn., selected out of the Cincinnati system in the 1961 Rule 5 draft, which (in the spirit of Sean Gilmartin [3]) heavily implies the Mets were compelled to keep him on their roster throughout 1962 if they wanted to keep him at all.

So they did. Moorhead made the Mets in Spring Training and was put to work as soon as possible. In that inaugural game, he became Casey Stengel [4]’s first relief pitcher. Roger Craig [5], another of those veterans with a presumably marketable pedigree, had given up five runs in the Mets’ first three innings. Stengel pinch-hit for his starter in the top of the fourth and inserted the rookie reliever in the bottom of the frame.

The game was 5-3 when Bob entered in the fourth, 10-4 when he left after the sixth. No, it wasn’t a storybook big league debut for Moorhead, but his foot was in the door. The late Bob Moorhead didn’t help the Mets win on April 11, 1962 — or win very often in general — but he served a valuable purpose in the greater scheme of things. He nudged that door open for other neophytes to get their shot as Mets.

After Moorhead came Ray Daviault [6], Jim Hickman [7] and Rod Kanehl [8] in the April days ahead, Rick Herrscher [9] that August and, representing the first marker toward the Met long haul, Ed Kranepool [10] in September. Ron Hunt [11] and Cleon Jones [12] headlined another class of new big leaguers in 1963. Within a couple of years, Mets fans would begin to anticipate and welcome youngsters who’d make their impressions stick: Ron Swoboda [13], Tug McGraw [14] and Bud Harrelson [15] in 1965; Nolan Ryan [16] in 1966; Tom Seaver [17], Jerry Koosman [18] and Ken Boswell [19] in 1967…and before you knew it, it was 1969.

In between were a lot of Mets who made it in the sense that they reached the big leagues for the first time as Mets, which is surely an accomplishment unto itself, but the record would indicate they weren’t exactly avatars of longevity. In later decades, the shall we say Moorhead-to-Seaver ratio wouldn’t be any more overwhelming in the Mets’ favor. Now and then, a Matlack, a Milner, maybe a Mazzilli would shine; more often, you’d be saying a nearly simultaneous “hi” and “bye” to Brian Ostrosser [20] or Brock Pemberton [21] or Butch Benton [22]. Even during the span when the Mets were busily producing and promoting another round of future champions — 14 members of the 1986 postseason roster rose to the majors as Mets — they had their fair share of discards. Some turned into trade bait. Some went basically nowhere. But there was always another one coming. And if you were human, you got a little extra excited to see each of them show up, show his stuff and show enough to keep you excited for the next show.

From Bob Moorhead on that first day in 1962 to Noah Syndergaard last night in 2015, there have been 360 Mets who made their major league debuts as Mets. That includes the Rule 5 guys acquired from other organizations; the Japanese imports who were rookies more on a technicality than in practice; the kids who were signed by somebody else who didn’t mind swapping them early for players they deemed necessary to obtain right away; and, most alluringly, the homegrown super prospects the Mets nurtured from first professional contract onward. Like Strawberry and Gooden way back when. Like Harvey not all that long ago. Like that.

Syndergaard isn’t like that because he was traded to the Mets from Toronto when the Blue Jays decided they had to have R.A. Dickey [23], a pretty desirable commodity in the wake of his 2012 Cy Young [24] season. Dickey was how the Mets got Travis d’Arnaud, too. That kind of deal netted us the likes of Ron Darling [25] long ago: top draft pick for Texas in 1981, Met minor leaguer by 1982, a Met taking on and setting down Rose, Morgan and Schmidt in order as of September 1983. Once you’re literally and figuratively in our system, we want you up with us; once you’re up, you’re ours. When we talked about all our young pitchers thirty-plus years ago, we didn’t hold Ronnie’s Rangers birth certificate against him.

In that same vein, we haven’t much thought of Noah as erstwhile Blue Jay property. Instead, we circled his name in the media guides of our mind as a future Met of the best kind, the kind we were looking forward to seeing ASAP, the kind whose advancement we grew impatient over. It wasn’t that Noah, 22 on his most recent birthday, was rudely keeping us waiting. He was just developing. That’s the word they use in baseball. “The Mets are developing young talent.” All teams do it. Some teams do it to great effect. Since the 2012 season began, the Mets can be said to have developed 31 players en route to MLB debuts as Mets. Some have already washed out. Some are struggling to get back. Some are momentarily on the mend.

Some are becoming the core of this team in 2015 and figure to be the core of this team clear to 2020 at the very least. This series at Wrigley Field features the cream of that crop, even if they haven’t necessarily been at their best. Noah Syndergaard is the latest in that line, the line that stretches back through Plawecki and Herrera and deGrom and d’Arnaud and Flores and Wheeler and Lagares and Familia and Harvey…clear back to Bob Moorhead.

The first appearance by the 360th Met to make a first major league appearance as a Met was as scintillating as it had to be. Syndergaard — who arrived with his very own widely disseminated nickname in tow — has stuff, all right, and he seems to know how to use it. He kept the Cubs, no pikers in the young talent department themselves, from scoring for five innings; the hand-operated scoreboard might as well have renamed the Thorboard. The kid worked himself out of trouble (some self-imposed, some inflicted on him by his defense) a couple of times. A couple of times he dominated. Eventually, he proved himself indisputably a rookie pitching for the first time against top-level competition. The Cubs couldn’t be contained in the sixth and Noah had to leave trailing, 3-0. Jake Arrieta [26] wasn’t giving the Mets anything, so even a polymorphic reincarnation of Seaver, Gooden and Harvey would have been challenged to prevail.

The Mets went on to lose Noah Syndergaard’s big league debut [27], 6-1. In the present, it’s more discouraging for the hitless-wonder offense than it is for the pitcher who kept the team viable as long as he could. In the bigger picture still in the process of being sketched, we are reminded what is beautiful about rooting for a team that keeps bringing up players we’ve never seen, particularly the ones who are said to be potentially very good, even if we are initially permitted only a glimpse of their most outstanding qualities.

The beauty part is they’re probably gonna keep getting better and, until further notice, they’re gonna keep being Mets.

Coincidentally debuting the same week as Syndergaard is a podcast called I’d Just As Soon Kiss A Mookiee [28], the hybrid brainchild of Shannon Shark and Jason Fry. It’s half Mets, half Star Wars. I listened to half of it (you can guess which half) and I adored what I heard. You might like all of it. Listen here [28].